WAG THE SUMMIT!

By Harlan Ullman
April 25th, 2012

“Wag The Dog” was a terrific movie satire about a political operative who manufactured a tiny war to cover up a damning presidential indiscretion.  How about a sequel? On the eve of a major international conference, the U.S. President is blind-sided by an exotic sex scandal. Twenty members of his advanced security detail hire prostitutes and engage in torrid orgies in the very hotel where the conference is being held. Portrayed in graphic and sensational detail on the screen, the question is whether this scandal reflected the frailties of human behavior or was another “wag the dog.”

At first blush, the movie answers this question as a breakdown of discipline and judgment without ulterior motive.  However, the hero of this tale—an investigative journalist rather than the Robert DeNiro of the original flick—digs further and finds that much darker and more sinister forces are at work.  The journalist embarks on finding out who or what would have the most to gain from this explosive scandal?  The role of foreign governments is quickly dismissed as a possibility.

Being an election year, suspicion falls on the disloyal opposition whose top Congressional priority is making the president a one-termer. Then, a more cynical possibility looms.  The journalist is tipped by someone in the Secret Service that the White House was involved.

Wag the dog becomes clearer.  The White House knows the summit will be disaster.  But cancellation would provoke an even worse outcome as the reasons could not be hidden. So what to do?

Americans believe that Secret Service officers are prepared to take the proverbial bullet for the President.  To cynical White House operatives a la DeNiro, why should that vow only apply to the giving of one’s life?  Loss of a professional life could also be part of this deal.  Our reporter then learns how this scandal was manufactured by a few White House insiders to change the negative conference narrative by deflecting and disinforming the media’s attention, thus saving the presidential reputation. Sex sells.

Movie critics would call this story ludicrous.  Yet, The Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Columbia followed that trajectory and was, fortunately for the White House, entirely swamped by media fixation on the sexual shenanigans. Broader lessons apply however.

Another, highly important summit will occur in late May in Chicago.  Twenty-eight NATO heads of state along with dozens of partner nations will grapple with the future of the alliance; what to do in Afghanistan; the economic crises; and other vital issues. The fictional question posed about who has most to gain if the summit fails is very real regarding Chicago.

The White House is just turning its full attention to the Summit.  Preparations were underway with the “Jumbo” NATO foreign and defenses ministers meeting in Brussels last week.  Many, seeing the intractability of key issues and the thinness of NATO’s narrative, predicted a crash.  Instead, at worst, the Summit is likely to prove a “crash landing” given NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s proposed agenda.  But the question of who has the most to gain if the summit fails is germane.

Wild cards are Russia’s new president, Vladimir Putin, and possibly the next president of France who might wish to make their mark.  Putin has declined to attend the NATO Summit.  However, with the G-8 meeting the day before at Camp David, he could change his mind.

The most likely disrupters are two sides of the same coin— opponents and adversaries of NATO’s engagement in Afghanistan.  Chicago has seen violent protests before although 2012 is not 1968 and Afghanistan is not Vietnam.  The size of possible protests is unclear.  The potential for disruption is very great.

With last week’s coordinated attacks across Afghanistan, the painful memory of Tet 1968 in Vietnam cannot be forgotten.  Obviously, the Taliban, al Qaeda and other insurgents in that part of the world are not so naïve as to fail to understand that disruption of the NATO Summit at a time when the majority of NATO publics oppose the war could have powerful political effect.  Whether or not the Taliban or anyone else can exploit this opportunity remains to be seen.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s critique last week of NATO’s intelligence failure to detect that wide scale attack underscores the dilemma and the risks.  Taliban do not necessarily think the way we do.  Some on our side arrogantly see that as a strategic failing.  On the other hand, given the sophistication of al Qaeda and Taliban messaging, the Summit must be on their target list.

As self-evident as this prospect is, our side will be on full alert. The sex scandal in Cartagena was a surprise.  The equivalent of staged Koran burnings, massive attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan and even sparking riots in Chicago or worse must not catch us napping and off-guard.

Harlan Ullman is Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business and Senior Advisor at Washington DC’s Atlantic Council.